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Saudi women’s rights activist sentenced to nearly 6 years in prison

A Saudi Arabian woman drives her car along a street in the coastal city of Jidda
A prominent activist in Saudi Arabia who had advocated for women to be allowed to drive was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.
(Reem Baeshen / AFP/Getty Images)

One of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists was sentenced Monday to nearly six years in prison, according to state-linked media, following her conviction under a vague and broadly worded counterterrorism law. The ruling nearly brings to a close a case that has drawn international criticism and the ire of U.S. lawmakers.

Loujain Hathloul has already been in pre-trial detention and endured several stretches of solitary confinement after pressing for greater rights for women, including being allowed to drive. Her continued imprisonment was likely to be a point of contention in relations between the kingdom and the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, whose inauguration takes place Jan. 20 — about two months before what is now expected to be Hathloul’s early release date.

Rights group Prisoners of Conscience, which focuses on Saudi political detainees, said Hathloul could be released in March based on time served and the suspension of 34 months of her sentence. She has been imprisoned since May 2018.

Her family said in a statement that she will be barred from leaving the kingdom for five years and required to serve three years of probation after her release.

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Biden has vowed to review the U.S.-Saudi relationship and take into greater consideration human rights and democratic principles. He has also vowed to reverse President Trump’s policy of giving Saudi Arabia “a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies,” including the targeting of female activists.

Hathloul was found guilty and sentenced to five years and eight months by the kingdom’s anti-terrorism court on charges of agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda, using the internet to harm public order and cooperating with individuals and entities that have committed crimes under anti-terror laws, according to state-linked Saudi news site Sabq.

As Saudi Arabia’s women are finally allowed to drive on Sunday, it marks the culmination of a decades-long struggle by a group of Saudi feminists who suffered imprisonment, harassment and other hardships as they campaigned for that simple right.

Hathloul has 30 days to appeal the verdict.

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“She was charged, tried and convicted using counterterrorism laws,” her sister, Lina Hathloul, said in a statement. “My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy.”

Sabq, which said its reporter was allowed inside the courtroom, reported that the judge said the defendant had confessed to committing the crimes and that her confessions were made voluntarily and without coercion. The report said the verdict was issued in the presence of the prosecutor, the defendant, a representative from the government’s Human Rights Commission and a handful of local media representatives.

The 31-year-old Saudi activist has long been defiantly outspoken about human rights in Saudi Arabia, even from behind bars. She launched hunger strikes to protest her imprisonment and joined other female activists in telling Saudi judges that she was tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men during interrogations.

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The women say they were caned, subjected to electric shocks and waterboarded. Some say they were groped and threatened with rape.

Hathloul rejected an offer to rescind her allegations of torture in exchange for early release, according to her family. A court recently dismissed her allegations, citing a lack of evidence.

Among other allegations was that one of the masked interrogators was Saud Qahtani, a close confidant and advisor to the crown prince at the time. Qahtani was later sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged role in the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey.

Although more than a dozen other Saudi women’s rights activists face trial, have spent time in prison or remain jailed, Hathloul’s case stood out in part because she was the only one to be referred to the Specialized Criminal Court, which tries terrorism cases.

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In many ways, her case came to symbolize Prince Mohammed’s dual strategy of being credited for ushering in sweeping social reforms and simultaneously cracking down on activists who had long pushed for change.

While some activists and their families have been pressured into silence, Hathloul’s siblings, who reside in the U.S. and Europe, consistently spoke out against the state prosecutor’s case and launched campaigns calling for her release.

The prosecutor had called for the maximum sentence of 20 years, citing evidence such as Hathloul’s tweets in support of lifting a decades-long ban on women driving and speaking out against male guardianship laws that had led to multiple instances of Saudi women fleeing abusive families for refuge abroad. Hathloul’s family said the prosecutor’s evidence also included her contacts with Amnesty International and speaking to European diplomats about human rights in Saudi Arabia.

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The longtime activist was first detained in 2014 under the previous monarch, King Abdullah, and held for more than 70 days after she attempted to livestream herself driving from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia to protest the ban on women driving.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2018 CBS interview in which he said Islam does not stipulate the wearing of the abaya has paved the way for Saudi women to go abaya-less in public. But those who do so risk harassment.

She has also spoken out against guardianship laws that barred women from traveling abroad without the consent of a male relative, such as a father, husband or brother. The kingdom eased guardianship laws last year, allowing women to apply for a passport and travel freely.

Her activism landed her multiple human rights awards and spreads in magazines such as Vanity Fair in a photo shoot next to the former actress Meghan Markle, who would later become the duchess of Sussex. She was also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

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Hathloul’s family says that in 2018, shortly after attending a U.N.-related meeting in Geneva about the situation of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, she was kidnapped by Emirati security forces in Abu Dhabi, where she had been residing and pursuing a master’s degree. She was then forced on a plane to Saudi Arabia, where she was barred from traveling and later arrested.

Hathloul was among three female activists targeted that year by state-linked media, which circulated her picture online and dubbed her a traitor.


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